Reflections On Africa

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

On February 18 my husband, Will Ranken and I began an adventure unlike any we have completed during the past 26 years. We flew to London and then to Nairobi, Kenya for a safari vacation that ended up with 4 days in Tanzania. This was not our first trip to Africa, for we visited Egypt in 1989 but I believe that in many ways we were unprepared for Eastern Africa.

This trip was both enchanting and disturbing. Some of you would prefer that I share the enchanting parts and leave out the disturbing. I would like to tell you some of each. To do this I have taken from my trip journal and interspersed it with some reflections on the concerns that I cannot put out of my mind, the ache that tells me world community is still a dream and might never become a reality.

Monday–Up at 6:30 bags in the hall and small bags for trip to the ARK, where we stop tonight. Wonderful breakfast, many choices. In the Toyota 9 passenger Land Cruiser, we have to go back to the main garage, our driver forgot his overnight bag! Off on 200 kilometer trip to lunch place and where we leave our big bags. Lovely resort with warthogs and baboons running all over the place, coming very close to the people. Bougainvillea bushes all around in many colors. Ate outside. Yellow birds all sizes. Got on special ARK bus to travel “20 min” to ARK. Long terrible ride. …The ARK has a watering hole where animals come to drink. Rooms meager but adequate. Buzzers go off when animals show up. All night long. Then you can look out the windows where these huge lights light everything up like daylight. The ARK is in a big preserve so the animals can’t really get out, so you can depend on seeing animals every night. A resident herd of Cape Buffalos wanders around. They put out salt because the animals dig for it if they don’t. We saw warthogs, bushbucks, 3 male elephants, one rhino, missed the leopard. Some colorful water birds and a few ducks with a reddish spot on their breasts. And two hyenas early on and four later on that had something they were eating. One of the buffalos looked like it lost its foot in a trap, limped badly but was aggressive and chased other animals away. They fed the birds on part of the suspended very long bridge you cross to get into the ARK and a family group of Dik-Dik were under a tree if we looked over the bridge.

Woke up early Tuesday morning when sun was starting to rise 6:20 cape buffalo standing outside our window.

Joining strangers in a Toyota Land Cruiser for eight hours a day is a challenge. We began with 27 people in Kenya and then 14 of us continued to Tanzania. Some were inveterate shoppers, who had to buy extra luggage in order to get all their purchases back home. We often had to wait for them to bargain for the lowest possible price before they came back to the vans. The prices already seemed low to me. I wondered why it was so important to keep the Africans from making a profit.

Something about this whole process felt very negative to me. I didn’t want to buy anything for this reason, which defeats the whole purpose of the business of tourism helping the Kenyan and Tanzanian economies. They need our dollars more than we need them. I couldn’t bargain with a clear conscience. After about the sixth day, however, I found myself falling into the pattern with the others. And then I heard myself crowing about a deal I had made, which I am sure left very little for the seller, that is for the poor person at the end of the chain exchanging something she had bought from a wholesaler for a pittance from me.

Wednesday 2/23/05
Lake Nakuru – Up at 6:30 for early start but delayed by one guy who overslept. Off for long ride over same roads we came on. Then new territory. Stopped at a tea plantation for tea and a tour that didn’t happen. Lots of children there – I thought it must be an orphanage maybe by accident. Thin very shabbily dressed nervous kids. JoAnn have out some pens and candy. Will bought some tea. Then… to our hotel near Lake Nakuru for lunch and settled in for short rest. Off at 4 pm for game tour with the tops of our vans all up. What a sight! All of the vehicles in the parking lot were 4-wheel drive vans, mostly Toyotas, with the tops up so you can stand up inside.

Long bumpy ride to get close to the lake, through a game preserve. Very soon we saw Impalas, a bachelor group all with horns and a family group with only one male; rhinos, cape buffalo, and numerous birds. Very dusty ride but worth every minute. One group of nine rhinos, water bucks, zebras, giraffe, 3 up very close, one lioness lying in the grass, Maribou storks; a rare S___ Ostrich, baboons, African spoon billed storks, African fish eagle, (live 40-46 years) Augur buzzard, geese, pelicans, yellow billed storks AND then the million flamingos eating algae from the salty water of shrinking Lake Nakura – walking both directions – …-making a low hum kind of noise. Indescribable! As far as one can see in both directions – a pale pink ribbon following the shore. 2 kinds of flamingos small and large 100 to one; young birds not as pink.

Dinner was served outside with music and dancing by 3 young women. 2 guitar/singers (a la Eberle brothers) Knew lots of songs. Drummers outside by the food, which included some E Indian dishes. Food served in metal posts over charcoal fires, like the common country people cook. Bush cooking, they call it. Smoky again, but not like last night. Our room is octangular in shape with a rack in the ceiling for mosquito netting, very dusty. Bathroom odd shaped with shower downhill in a corner, no shower curtain.

A second remaining ache for me is the huge difference between life styles of Americans and Kenyans. Kenya has been a republic only since 1963 or 1964, depending on how you describe it. Jomo Kenyatta came out of the Mau Mau rebellion and spent time in jail before becoming the first president. He outlawed opposition parties and formed a one party state in 1974. The stability this brought encouraged foreign investment.

After Kenyatta’s death, Daniel arap Moi become president, whose 24 years in office were marked by corruption and the suppression of any dissent, not helpful to the development of the republic. The current president, Mwai Kibaki campaigned on corruption reform, but it is slow in coming. Some US aid has been cut off due to the problems of corruption, and Kenya needs all the help it can get. They need to build 30,000 schools in order to teach all children to speak English, which is the official language of the nation.

We saw some schools. Children were sitting outside on the ground in the sun. Some of the children wore uniforms, a lot of dark blue, not the best color for sitting in the sun. Everyone walks. Some of the girls wore shoes but it was rare to see a boy with shoes.

In the Masai areas, there is a greater problem getting the children to school because the population is spread out in small villages with a circle of perhaps 20 stick, mud and dried manure huts surrounded by a barrier of sticks to keep the lions and hyenas out at night. The livestock huddle in the inside of the circle at night with no apparent source of water. They are herded by the same children the nation is trying to educate. Some of them have learned a few words of English. Our safari vehicles were nearly the only cars on the road other than the “matatus,” or minibuses. Very small children shouted to us “How are you?” as we passed.

Some of the cynics in our group commented that the children wave and then hold out their hand to ask for something. This was another part of my concern over Americans’ lack of sensitivity. Each of us had spent at least $4,000 for this trip and yet felt it necessary to speak in this way about children who have no paper, no pencils, no books and no electricity, to say nothing of no clean water nor mosquito netting. One woman, however, had brought along dozens of ball point pens and possibly 20# of candies to give away.

Thursday: Went for game drive at 3:30 (was scheduled for 3) As we drove out we saw zebras, giraffes, impalas and an ostrich, right near our compound all within the first hour. They took us to a Masai village where we saw dances, houses, and bought their art. Children looked sick, sunken eyes, runny noses, filthy clothes all torn. No water. Houses made of sticks, mud and dried cow dung which was also used to make the tables for the small market where their crafts were displayed.

After this we drove thru animal country on mostly single track roads. Very rough. Saw amazing assortment of animals: Topi with gunmetal colored flanks, many ostrich, black back jackal, secretary birds, elephants, lions in two places, warthogs a beautiful cheetah, water bucks, bush bucks, Thompson gazelles.

The Masai have great herds of goats, sheep and cattle. Also smaller herds. They wear traditional dress wrapped in their small blankets. In the wind I saw modern Bermuda shorts underneath. Everyone carries a stick. They practice polygamy depending upon the wealth of the man, more cows=more wives. They showed us how they start fires with sticks and emphasized how only men could do this. I didn’t believe it. I was also told that men carve and women do bead work. Sexism in Kenya seems pretty serious.

In spite of this blatant sexism, we know of the success of Kenyan biologist and environmental activist, Dr. Wangari Maathai, who worked with thousands of people to plant over 30 million trees in Africa. She has been recognized worldwide because she was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. She is a courageous women who stood up to the attitudes of a government plagued with sexist practices and corruption. Planting these trees was quite an effort. We saw very few pieces of heavy equipment in Kenya and many workers digging ditches with grub hoes along the side of the road. Fields are also turned over by hand.

Friday, 2/25/05
8 1/2 hours of riding on the Mara Masai plain with only 1/2 hr break for box lunch is a long day. Spells of hordes of animals, then miles with none around. Saw many water holes, one with a pride of lions lying in wait for Topi standing on the hill, scores of them, Thompson gazelles, one which was brave enough to get a drink, or was it an Impala. Went to a hippo pool where dozens were happily snorting lazily in the water. …

Saw a cheetah under a tree with a gazelle. She was eating it. Had torn the skin and was sticking her head into the chest cavity to eat. Saw a family group of three female elephants, one young daughter, and a tiny ! baby standing underneath the mother’s belly. Very cute. I could have stayed there all day. They were in a little depression with tall green grass. They pulled up the grass by the roots and shook off the dirt before eating it.

It has been difficult for me to be fully present here since I returned on March 8. I am dealing with what they call “culture shock.” It would be easy to say “out of sight, out of mind.” Yet the continent of Africa is in the news day after day and the suffering and unnecessary deaths of millions of people haunt me. Tribal conflicts, government corruption, HIV/AIDS, economic failure, and the leftovers of colonialism all conspire to keep most of the countries in Africa from development.

My view of life has once again been changed, for I have experienced an awareness of profound beauty and profound poverty, which I cannot forget. The thrill of seeing the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and the vista that is Mount Kenya and the thousands of Cape Buffalo, Wildebeests and Hartebeests gathering in the Serengeti plain are dimmed by the memories of the children, and of the men and women walking with incredible burdens on their back, charcoal, water, sticks, corn stalks for their stock. And men using old fashioned bikes like trucks. One had a couch balanced on the back of his bicycle.

What troubles me most is the way we spend our money in the world. Kenya has been subject to attacks and continuing threats by Al Queda. Kenya’s life expectancy is 40. Five hundred people die each day from HIV/AIDS. There is 60% unemployment or under employment, which means people earn less than $1 per day. Kenyans like being able to complain under their new administration, they like democracy and would like to end the long suffered corruption at all levels of society. Recently a number of national leaders publicly urged the new president to speed up the process and to fire some of the worst offenders.

Among the African nations we know many are continuing a struggle for self governance and peace, for safety from rebel forces who have displaced millions. Yet our billions are going to Iraq, which has enough oil to provide education and medical care had we not destroyed their infrastructure during the past two years. How is our foreign policy really making the world safer?

Wednesday, my birthday
Today was quite a day. After lunch we hit the Serengeti Plain and saw many amazing things: 16 lions, one jaguar in a tree. Thousands of wildebeests, zebras, and Thompson Gazelles, warthogs, Kari bustards- biggest flying bird in Africa, Maribou storks, ostrich, a few elephants, scores of giraffe, Cape buffalo, thousands of small white butterflies rising like dust out of the bushes as we drove by. Vultures standing by for the wildebeest kill one group of lions had. A lost baby zebra ran ahead of us right into the clutches of the lions who were already full and not experienced hunters. They let it out run them. We saw the lions crouch down to sneak up to the zebra. Very exciting. We all wanted to see what happened and we didn’t want to see what happened. The baby got away. We saw a zebra with a wire cutting its neck. It had gotten into and out of a poacher’s trap but was done for, would bleed to death.

It rained a lot this afternoon. There are hippos near our tent/room. We couldn’t figure out what these strange noises might be. They sound alternately like machinery that needs oil and a low airy pruff, pruff sound. Migration Camp is fully of hyrax, like big guinea pigs, but distantly related to elephants and in a category by themselves.

At dinner the hosts (we are staying at Migration Camp) brought champagne for my birthday and Will ordered a cake which came warm from the oven. Singing waiters and all. Blew out the candles. Very memorable birthday in Tanzania.

I am one of those people that some radio personalities call a whining liberal.
I am also a Unitarian Universalist who has a dream that our sixth principle might actually become something that we could claim we have achieved. We affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. Traveling to Kenya and Tanzania is one small way to help.

There must be other ways. My overwhelming feeling this morning is that I would like to start a revolution but I’m not certain what shape it would take. In the meantime, perhaps we each can find some small way to brighten the life of someone this week, some way to ease pain and suffering, to lighten the spirit and to extend compassion to those around us.